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Headline News, Regency Style

By Julie Cooper, author of The Bachelor Mr Darcy

Newspapers proliferated during the Regency—and this despite the so called ‘Taxes on Knowledge’—a tax on paper and newspapers. By 1815 the tax on newspapers had reached four pence a copy. As few people could afford to pay six or seven pence for a daily newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most journals to those with fairly high incomes. Still, where there is a will, there is a way; most, when they finished reading, turned the papers over to their servants, who might even resell it. It has been estimated that each paper was read by up to twenty others. Some, like publisher William Cobbett, turned the newspaper into a ‘pamphlet’ to avoid the tax—Cobbett’s Political Register sold for only two pence, and soon became the established source of weekly news for the working man, with a circulation of 40,000. (Hence came the phrase, ‘two-penny trash’.)


In my recent book The Bachelor Mr Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet stumbles into the occupation of gossip columnist in a popular newspaper. She writes under the pseudonym ‘Mr Pennywithers’, a valet to some anonymous wealthy and titled gentleman, who becomes known for his optimistic wit and heart-filled wisdom.


In order to flesh out Elizabeth’s character, it was necessary to understand the flavour of Regency newspapers, and, actually, read several of them. According to the December 1811 issue of The Pilot, much sought-after London newspapers included The Times (the Tory paper of choice), The Morning Post (heavily supported by the Prince Regent), The Morning Chronicle (a Whig paper), The Morning Herald, The British Press, The Day, The Public Ledger, The Morning Advertiser, The London Chronicle, The London Packet, The Evening Mail, The Instructor, The British Mercury, Cobbettt’s Political Register, The Courier, The Globe, The Statesman, The Pilot, The Traveller, The Sun, The Star, Alfred, The Commercial Chronicle, The St James’s Chronicle, The English Chronicle, The General Evening Post, and The London Gazette. This is far from a complete list.


Newspapers were generally four pages in length, with the typeset very small. Illustrations were less common, but began appearing after 1805-6.


If one is searching for modern sensibilities in these past publications, one will usually end up empty-handed. However, if one wishes to know where the Countess Dowager Spencer summered in 1811, and just who amongst The Fashionables was in residence in Ramsgate, they were quite useful.


What might one expect when opening a freshly delivered and ridiculously expensive newspaper? Firstly, and foremostly, there were ads.

The front page of the August 1st, 1811 issue of The Globe proclaimed the publication of the gothic novel by Clara Reeve, ‘The Old English Baron’ as well as the third edition of ‘Self-Control, A Novel’ along with the announcement of future books for sale. As well, there appeared quite a lengthy advertisement for watches and snuff boxes made of ‘Petit-Or’ instead of gold—which metal approximates so nearly to gold, as to be nearly indistinguishable! As well were cures for syphilis (frequently contracted in a moment of indiscretion) in addition to ‘American Soothing Syrup’ (evidently, not too many readers worried about dosing toddlers with opiates). Perhaps three-fourths of the front page was devoted to such ads and announcements.


Still, a number of column inches were granted to Bishop Horsley’s Sermons, 2nd edition (are you paying attention, Indiscreet Syphil-ites?) The first page of serious publications might also have war news of some kind, especially first-person accounts from various correspondents.

Page 2 of The Morning Chronicle, January 1st, 1810 edition, continued with war news and then was filled with gossip. A columnist going by the title ‘The Mirror of Fashion’ enlightened us as to who was dining with whom, but The Globe used the space to provide an extensive report upon His Majesty’s health. Then they regaled us with who was dining with whom (the Queen and the Princesses with the Duke of Cambridge, at Frogmore Lodge) who left town (the Duke of York, for Windsor), and who died (Richard Gurney, Esq, interred in the Gildencraft Burial Ground of Norwich, attended by 17 carriages and a numberless concourse of spectators.)


Page 3 of the 1811 Globe was devoted to ship news—which ones were arriving, and which were leaving the London ports. One could suppose that the Austens in particular might have examined those columns carefully, looking for mentions of Francis and Charles Austen’s vessels. After the ship news, The Globe lifted a large block of fashion text straight from the pages of La Belle Assemblée—this author is supposing that the laws against plagiarising were less than enforceable in those days. This might be followed by trials and crimes, sporting intelligence—specifically the races, theatre notices, and agricultural reports. But gossip, gossip, and more gossip, was plainly the order of the day and usually sprinkled liberally throughout all except page 1. Page 3 of The Sun, published in 1810, described this society spectacular:


Ball at Mrs Johnstone’s

The above lady, the rich and accomplished heiress of the late admiral Sir Richard Hughes, gave a splendid ball and supper on Monday evening at her beautiful residence in Portland-place, in honour of his Majesty having completed the 50th year of his reign. The house was very superbly fitted up for the occasion; the utmost taste prevailed throughout. Gow’s inimitable band was engaged. The illuminations were very brilliant. The dancing commenced at ten o’clock; the supper at one. The banquet was costly in the extreme; about 120 persons sat down to table. The party broke up at four o’clock in the morning.

The British Press, January 1810 edition, offered this tit-bit:

Thursday night, a splendid ball and supper, under the patronage of her Grace the Duchess of Manchester, was given here, which considering the lateness of the season,

was uncommonly well attended by all the Fashionables in the vicinity.

At ten o’clock her Grace entered the ball-room, accompanied by Miss Onslow,

Mrs Chaplain, Prince Augustus, Lord Mandeville, Captain McNeill and Mr Chatterton, (18th Light Dragoons), Mr Johnston, &c &c. Dancing immediately commenced.


Were you curious about who of the thirty couples who danced with whom during the opening set? We hope so. A goodly number of column inches were devoted to the subject. Page 4 of the 1811 Globe was about half devoted to advertisements for treatises upon various subjects, rentals, reports from the Court of Chancery, police reports, the price of stocks from the previous day, and a brief list of marriages and deaths.


Cultural appreciation was not limited to lists of plays and theatres. Many a lengthy poem was immortalised in those pages. Consider this anonymous pedantic offering from The Chester Chronicle, Feb 9, 1810:


Arthur

Yes Arthur, I was at the ball. I danc’d with some and talk’d with many,

But found no heartfelt charm in any, Alike indifferent to all;

Nor heeded what they said to me, For all my thoughts were fixed on thee.

 

Yes Arthur, I was dressed with care, Nor last among the belles appearing;

But did not meet thy smile enduring—But did not hear thee call me fair;

And flattery has no charm for me, Unless I’m flattered, love, by thee.

 

Yes, many sought my ear to gain, Among the insipid Sons of Fashion;

Some vowed or feigned or felt a passion; Some spoke of long dissembled pain;

But all their cares were lost on me, My heart is all engrossed by thee.

 

Yes Arthur, I freely own, Tho’ all his brother beaus were teasing,

I thought most eloquent and pleasing, And listened but to him alone;

The magic charm he had for me, Was, Arthur, that he spoke of thee.

 

That darling theme can never tire, The only one I hear with pleasure,

In lonely absence all my treasure—It can a very fool inspire:

And life has no concern for me, Except the care of pleasing thee.

 

This author would bet her last shoe rose that a man wrote Arthur. It screams of wishful thinking.

 

Another story explained the jury trial of a sixteen-year-old and a twenty-year old for burglary (stolen: a coat, a tippet, two pair of boots, and a pair of shoes). Found guilty, and sentenced to death. These were rough times. One could easily believe that the folks at home might have wished for a Mr Pennywithers, with kinder, gentler news.

 

 

 Resources:

 

Cheryl Bolen, Regency Writers, The Proliferation of Newspapers in Regency England; https://regencyfictionwriters.org/the-proliferation-of-newspapers-in-regency-england

 

 

 

 

Image Sources (all public domain):

British Newspaper Archive


Trial of the Rev. Edward Irving, M.A.; a cento of criticism

Year: 1823




 

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